Open Letter to Parents of Pupils at George Watsons' College
20 November, 2017 - 16:24
Open Letter to parents of pupils at George Watson’s College
The Principal of George Watson’s College issued a statement and comments to the media last week in response to a speech I made in the Scottish Parliament. The comments are misleading and convey an erroneous impression of both what I said and why I said it. I hope that the following notes set the record straight.
Last week was National Anti-Bullying Week. (1) The Scottish Parliament scheduled a debate on bullying, harassment and personal and social education. The debate proceeded on a motion to note the findings and recommendations in the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s 5th Report, 2017, (Session 5), It is not Cool to be Cruel: Prejudice-based bullying and harassment of children and young people in schools (2) and the Education and Skills Committee’s 7th Report, 2017 (Sessions 5), Let’s Talk about Personal and Social Education. (3)
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s report makes for sober reading and contains testimony to the fact that bullying and harassment remain ugly and pervasive across schools in Scotland. The Committee’s recommendations and the Scottish Government’s response to it are designed to tackle bullying and harassment and ensure that young people can be educated in an environment that respects their human rights.
Bullying and harassment have many dimensions and these were reflected in the range of contributions in the debate. One issue is that the statutory provisions and guidance that exist do not, in general, apply automatically to schools that are outside of local authority control. I have been working on this matter for over a year in response to representations from parents who had a child at George Watson’s College.
On 26 October 2017, following a Special Inspection of the School by HM Inspectors, the Registrar of Independent Schools (a statutory office that maintains a Register of all schools that are not public or grant-maintained) wrote to the Merchant Company of Edinburgh to serve a notice of complaint by Scottish Ministers to the effect that (4)
The Scottish Ministers are satisfied that George Watson’s College is at risk of becoming objectionable on the following ground:
“(aa) that the welfare of a pupil attending the school is not adequately safeguarded and promoted there”.
This decision was based on a significant volume of information provided by the parents of a former pupil, HM Inspector (5) and by the school itself. Accordingly, Scottish Ministers imposed conditions on the running of George Watson’s College. The Merchant Company of Edinburgh has until 23 November 2017 to appeal to the Sheriff Principal again this decision.
The speech I made to Parliament acknowledged the complaints of constituents with whom I have been working for over a year, drew attention to the Scottish Ministers decision and called on the Scottish Government to ensure that as a matter of policy and law, all anti-bullying measures adopted apply equally to private schools as they do to public and grant-maintained schools. (6)
My motives in saying what I did were to alert parents and prospective parents that inadequate safeguards were in place at George Watson’s College (a matter that they are entitled to be aware of) and to call for an investigation into whether any other school run by the Merchant Company of Edinburgh or by anyone else in Scotland had governance problems in relation to bullying. I did this in order to protect and uphold the human rights of pupils and I published the hitherto unpublished Decision Letter and HMI Report. (4&5)
I anticipated that George Watson’s College might not be happy that this information was now in the public domain but did not expect the ill-informed and imprudent reaction from the Principal, Melvyn Roffe.
In a statement published on the school website he made a number of revealing comments which I comment on below. (7)
Today Scottish Green Party MSP Andy Wightman MSP chose to take the opportunity of a general debate about the Government’s new policy to counter bullying in Scotland’s schools to make allegations about George Watson’s College. (GWC Statement)
Not so. It was a debate on two Parliamentary Committee reports.
“The decision of the Registrar of Independent Schools to place three temporary conditions on our registration was, in our view, at odds with the positive tone of the HMI Report.” (GWC Statement)
The decision to place these conditions was taken by Scottish Ministers and not by the Registrar. The HMI report highlighted serious concerns and, in any event, was just one of the pieces of evidence used to come to this decision. Other evidence included (crucially) evidence from the school itself.
However, it should be noted that none of the conditions relate to any of our practice in addressing bullying or our child protection and safeguarding procedures. (GWC Statement)
Not true. The Decision Letter is explicit that the welfare of a pupil is not adequately safeguarded and accordingly (my emphasis), Ministers are satisfied that it is necessary to impose conditions.
The Scottish Ministers note that, as per the report from HM Inspectors, the school identified a number of areas for improvement which relate to (my emphasis) the areas of concern identified by the parents of the former pupil, as well as the internal review commissioned by the school.” (Decision Letter)
The conditions do very much relate to bullying and safeguarding issues.
In statements made to the Evening News, the Times and the Daily Telegraph, Mr Roffe suggests that the concerns relate to just one old case. But Scottish Ministers have no powers to investigate specific complaints and their decision that the welfare of a pupil is not adequately safeguarded and promoted at George Watson’s College refers to the present day. In other words, this risk is something that exists now.
He also claims that there was no evidence that the child concerned was bullied and blames the child concerned for “having problems making friends”. It is inappropriate to victim-blame a child for the school’s failures and, as pointed out above, the child concerned is not even at the school anymore.
Mr Roffe also blames the parents for a “war of attrition against the school”, accuses me of pursuing a “vendetta against private education” and claims that the comments I made in Parliament were “outrageous”.
As is made very clear in the Decision Letter the governance reforms are directly related to the problems identified with bullying. For the Principal to attempt to deflect and deny this suggests either that he does not understand what he has been told or that he wishes to mislead parents and the wider public.
Quite why Mr Roffe has decided to misrepresent the serious nature of the Scottish Minister’s intervention is a question you will have to put to him.
Over the past few days I have received many emails and phone calls from parents and former pupils informing me of very serious problems. It behoves Mr Roffe to be straight with you and with the public.
The problems identified exist but they can be dealt with. It is time to deal with them.